16 June 2016

Madam Speaker

Public speaking is an activity that fills many people with dread, not just those of an anxious nature. My own fear has its origins in an incident that took place when I was 17-years-old. 

At my secondary school, the upper sixth-form pupils had to take it in turns to read a bible passage at the lower school assembly. This meant joining the head teacher up on the stage, in front of hundreds of 11 to 14-year-olds. As a teenager, I was an introvert and the last thing I wanted was to be centre of attention. 

We were given no guidance as to how to deal with this challenge and by the time I stood up to deliver my reading, my heart was racing; my voice trembled so much that I was almost unintelligible. That experience was a poor foundation for handling similar situations in the future.

So intense is my dislike of speaking in public that I even avoid asking questions in group settings, unless I absolutely have to. Then I become so dizzy with nerves that I barely register the answer anyway.

I'm not much better in social environments. While I love to chat and to make people laugh, I can only cope with an audience of up to three. If a lull in surrounding conversations means more than that tune in to mine, I'm instantly uncomfortable. I'd be a great stand-up comedian, if only I could hold all my gigs in a wardrobe.

However, as a writer, giving talks is a great way to raise your profile and promote your work, so it was something I had to face. Not least because I also wanted to share my experience of living with obsessive-compulsive disorder, in order to raise awareness and to help address the ongoing stigma around mental health.

Image courtesy of North Finchley Library
The first couple of talks, at local libraries, were as nerve-wracking as I'd expected. I had to put my glass of water on a shelf behind me, so that nobody could see my hand shaking when I took a sip. However, they seemed to go well and I received a good reception at both.

Last month, I gave three presentations for staff at my local council, to mark Mental Health Awareness Week, and was surprised to find that my anticipatory nerves had gone. By the time it came to the second, I was actively looking forward to the event.

All the usual speakers' tips had failed to calm me previously, so what had changed? My increasing familiarity with my material probably helped, but I think the key factor was the positive response to my earlier talks. Now, at least, I was going in with the confidence that my audience wouldn't be bored rigid.

At every event, I've ended up chatting to people who either have a mental health problem themselves or know somebody who does. It's rewarding to be able to steer them in the direction of appropriate resources, or just to reassure them that they're not alone.

And I'm grateful that overcoming one of my anxiety demons means I can now do more to help others tackle their issues.